Month: January 2017

Michael Richards ‘Winged’ Takes Flight: A Voice Once Silenced Cries Out Anew (Part Two)

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Truth to Power

Yours truly beside sculpture of Tar Baby vs, St. Sebastian (Photo courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Sep. 2016)
Yours truly beside sculpture of Tar Baby vs, St. Sebastian (Photo courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Sep. 2016)

These are the photographs and/or descriptions of the remaining works left behind by the late Michael Richards, an artist and sculptor who perished in the 9/11 attacks that brought him and thousands of others down with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

img_0973Let Me Entertain You, 1993, Mixed media installation with video, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Michael Richards Estate

“The installation takes the form of a historical dressing room of famous performer Bert Williams … A video of the artist applying blackface is projected unto the mirror. On the left wall of the room are four mirrors, printed with photographs of the artist, on which text is silk-screened questioning the degree of blackness reflected: ‘Black, ‘Blacken,’ ‘Black Enough For You.’”

img_0977Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head), 1994, Resin, mirrors, lights, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park and the Michael Richards Estate

“Richards references the biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder, which describes Jacob dreaming of a ladder that connects earth to heaven, on which angels ascend and descend. Yet, in this sculpture, the text and disembodied feet and heads reveal a complex and pessimistic interpretation, or possible consequence, of this dream. Climbing Jacob’s Ladder highlights the tension between faith and failure; of looking to the heavens with a longing for ascension and the letdown of earthbound realities.”

img_0979Escape Plan 76 (Brer Plane in the Brier Patch), 1996, Wax, resin, paper, metal, rubber, lights, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

This piece “consists of five downed airplane sculptures caught in thick barbed wire. In an artist statement discussing the iconography of his practice, Richards noted, ‘Planes and other vehicles of escape are always caught in traps, or crashed, abandoned signs of hope and promise.’ ”

“Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories of Brer Rabbit were a touchstone for Richards and the reference appears throughout the titles of Richards’ work. In one of these stories, Brer Fox thinks he has thwarted his rival Brer Rabbit by throwing him into the prickly shrubs of a briar patch, only for Brer Rabbit to escape because he was ‘born and bred in the briar patch.’ Richards turned to Uncle Remus folklore as narratives and metaphors for negotiations of historical and contemporary racial politics.”

img_0981Swing Lo’, 1996, Steel, neon, wood, speakers with musical soundtrack, audio tape, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park

Swing Lo’ consists of a large, rusted chariot outfitted with neon lights and one wheel (a seconds wheel is purposefully, but mysteriously, missing). When installed, the chariot played reggae music from a booming sound system. The work conflates the biblical chariot with the visual vernacular of a souped-up lowrider car, retrofit with lights and stereo. Richards often merged worlds in this way, bringing together spiritual and literary references with popular culture to complicate the themes of his work. Richards’ recurring interest was in both the everyday and the transcendent, and how bringing them into conversation with each other opened up to a plurality of representation and interpretation.”

“Along with a nod to lowrider cars, the title Swing Lo’ more directly references the American negro spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”

img_0984“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” an old spiritual, the voice of reason — preaching tolerance and understanding. But at the same time, holding a “mirror” up to life’s inequities and how we have been treated by those who have exploited race and economic equality for their own purposes.

img_0985The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee), 1996, Wood, resin, plexiglass, tar, feathers, paper, bonded bronze, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

“In describing the stakes of this work, Richards said, “[The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee)] is in the form of a public monument. You see these bronze monuments in the park and you just walk past them, yet they’re supposed to be the highest honor in our society. They’re commemorating some great deed or person. But I have to question is that really what we’re fighting for — a piece of bronze in a public park that no one notices or cares about? The whole heroic ideal of glory that you’re fighting for seems rather empty and banal when it comes down to that. With this installation it gets ambiguous because ‘Tuskegee’ is inscribed on the base. People assume it’s referring to the Tuskegee airmen, but it’s also about the Tuskegee experiments. At the same time and place that the Tuskegee airmen were getting their training, black men were being used in experiments to see how syphilis would progress through their bodies. So therefore it’s a destroyed and neglected monument. But it’s also one in which, the viewer, in order to see the hidden tar field inside, has to bow down to the monument. It’s a sexualized and an allegorical work in relation to all of these things.’ ”

Untitled (Air Lift), 1997, Super hold hair gel, plastic, wax, pigment, and plexiglass, Installation image courtesy of the Bronx Museum of the Arts

img_0989Free F’All, 1997, Resin, steel, mirror, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum of Harlem

“Richards created Free F’All during his fellowship with Socrates Sculpture Park in 1997. A life-size Tuskegee Airmen figure stands atop a tiny landing, 16 feet in the air, with a bucket below him, evoking the image of a dicing board and pool, yet Richards’ figure instead has a much smaller space for positioning his potential leap, perhaps alluding to the limited and constricting options for African-Americans in the face of ongoing oppression. Richards’ figures and bodyparts were often pierced and the airman in Free F’All is riddled with nails. Specifically a reference to [Congolese] nkisi nkondi medicinal power figures, this visual allusion highlights Richards’ exploration not only of race in contemporary America, but also of African ancestry, tradition, and religion.”

[Untitled] (Free F’All), 1997, fiberglass and resin with iron oxide, Brooklyn Museum, Anonymous gift in honor of Michael Richards, 2007 © Estate of Michael Richards, Installation image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

img_0991Map Head, 1999, Urethane, resin, transfer, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

N’Kisi Nigga, 1999, Urethane, metal, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

“Throughout his career, Richards used his own body to cast his sculptures, including the disembodied heads for sculptures like N’Kisi Nigga and Map Head. Nkisi nkondi sculptures were an important reference for the piercing that was a hallmark of Richards’ sculptures. These Congolese power figures were used to protect a community and embodied defensive power. The nails and blades that often punctured the sculptures activated the spirits made accessible in the figures. Invoking the name of the N’Kisi figures and pairing it with the multiple inflections of the word Nigga, ranging from derogatory to the reclaimed, familiar, and colloquial, the title of Richards’ sculpture N’Kisi Nigga is a complex comment on the relationship between contemporary American racial politics and African heritage.”

img_0993Tar and Feather, 1999, Bonded bronze, tar, metal, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park

Tar and Feather is a poetic balancing act of lightness and weight. Five cast bronze sets of wings hang precariously from monofilament, encircling an overfull bucket of tar and a resulting puddle of tar on the floor.”

“Richards was consistently interested in the complexity of charged materials throughout his practice. While the sculpture’s wings, feathers, and flight speak to the possibilities of escape and uplift for Richards, on the flipside, the tar, and its racial connotations, reflect the ways in which black people can be struck or inhibited by systemic racial prejudice. As with Tar and Feather, Richards’ work purposefully navigated and mined this tension in both material and concept.”

img_0995Are You Down?, 2000, fiberglass, bonded bronze, resin, concrete, black beauty sand, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park

“Richards created his largest work, Are You Down?, in 2000, as part of a Jerome Fellowship at Franconia Sculpture Park, just outside of Minneapolis, MN.”

“John Hock, Artistic Director/CEO & Co-founder of Franconia Sculpture Park, describes the piece: ‘Are You Down? was created and is sited … outside the rural town of Shafer, Minnesota …. The original sculpture was cast in resin/fiberglass — cast into bronze, as a memorial, in 2012 & is the only permanent sculpture at Franconia. Are You Down? is a tableau of three life-sized human figures. Three parachutists fallen from the sky, they sit disconsolate on the ground in a mass of heavy black sand. Backs turned to one another, the figures form a triangle about fifteen feet on a side. Within the triangle of the figures is a large bulls-eye flat on the ground, the target where the men had aimed to land. Their heads clad in leather hat aviator helmets, their shirts torn from the drop, the figures represent three downs aviators from the storied, all-black Tuskegee Airmen Squadron of the Second World War, men whose images Richards (using himself as his model) returned to in his work obsessively, again and again. They speak not so much of the exhilaration of flight as of dreams of freedom crashed to Earth.’ ”

“In speaking to the pilot imagery in his practice, particularly the Tuskegee Airmen, Richards noted, ‘The pilots serve as a symbol of failed transcendence, and lost faith, escaping the pull of gravity, but always forced back to the ground, lost navigators seeking home.’ ”

img_0998Fly Away O’ Glory, 1995, Resin bronze, feathers, motors, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

Fly Away O’ Glory consists of an arrangement of seven pairs of metallic bronze, muscular cast arms, with hands extended, each holding one feather that spins vigorously via motor power. Richards often used motors and kinetic elements to give his artworks literal motion and drive. With its spinning feathers and disembodied forearms, this work calls to mind the Greek myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with wax wings that melted, causing him to fall to his death in the sea. In this work and others, Richards explores the opposing forces of uplift and downfall inherent in flight: the transcendent potential of wings and elevation and the inherently opposing risk of crashing and peril.”

“Grounded and flailing, the spinning feathers of Fly Away O’ Glory, despite their efforts, cannot lift and elevate the forearms of the sculpture. The unresolved, Sisyphean kinetic energy of this floor-bound sculpture speaks to the difficulty, maybe even impossibility of taking off and reaching great heights in a system and society that is structured to silence marginalized voices and repress their success.”

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Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me), 1998, Hair, latex, and glass, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

Planes plummeting from the ceiling above into a mirrored abyss — again, Michael’s prescience was captured by his ultimate realization of the existing 9/11 Memorial, built on the exact spot where the North and South Towers once stood: two rectangular-shaped pools of water, open spaces, with middle squares of water pouring into a hole.

“In this impactful sculpture, 50 small airplanes wrapped in hair spiral downwards, from a cloud of hair in the ceiling, towards a mirrored bull’s-eye target on the floor. Richards often used hair in his sculptures, noting ‘I use hair and skin in an investigative way to raise questions of duality about race and social issues …. I just thought this is a perfect material in terms of its metaphorical content and reference to my own concerns about climbing the social ladder and how people judge me for my hair.’ ”

“The work’s title His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me quotes the religious hymns of Civilla Martin. The hymn is about value, hope, and faith in the face of hardship, and the care of the creator to all aspects of the world, including creatures as small as sparrows. Richards often included biblical references, from Jacob to St. Sebastian, in his works. In Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me), with airplanes as small as sparrows nose-diving toward a mirror that reflects their downward flight back upward, a sense of faith and fate are confounded and Richards’ interest in flight with its transcendent and devastating possibilities comes to the fore.”

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A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994, Resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo features five bust-like plaster heads and pedestals. Four of the heads rest atop small bases and bear images of white police officers in confrontational postures outfitted in riot gear. The images themselves were cut from newspapers and applied via a photo transfer method. Plaques are adhered to the pedestals for each of these four busts reading, ‘When I was young I wanted to be a policeman.’ The fifth and central disembodied head spins via a motor, and has an image of Rodney King’s face in the middle of the forehead, with a plaque on the pedestal reading the titular phrase, ‘A loss of faith brings vertigo.’ ”

“Rodney King was a taxi driver who brutally beaten by police officers after a high-speed chase in Los Angeles in 1991. King found himself at the center of a furor around racial injustice and police violence as video footage of the four police officers repeatedly striking him gained international attention. The police officers were eventually acquitted of charges, which is considered to be the main cause leading to the 1992 Los Angeles riots in which 53 people were killed and thousands injured.”

“With King at the center, the narrative of Richards’ sculpture is one of a loss of faith in the police and the dissolution of any implicit relationship to safety and protection. The antagonistic stances and actions of the white police officers depicted, juxtaposed with the presence of King’s slowly rotating face, has an effect of total disorientation. During our contemporary moment, in the face of recurring police brutality, the continued murders of black men at the hands of police officers, and the responsive Black Lives Matter movement, A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo continues to have urgent and pressing resonance two decades after its creation.”

img_1014Travel Kit, 1999, Bonded bronze, hair, and wood, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

Travel Kit is one of the most surreal of Richards’ sculptures. While a standard travel kit contains toiletries or other every day items, Richards inflects his version with a tinge of the grotesque. Seven fingers extend from each of two hairbrushes entangled in tufts of hair, providing an otherworldly take on primping. For Richards, ‘The suitcases [in my work] function as carrier of memories, containers of longing and desire for a lost home.’ Richards was born in Brooklyn, yet grew up in Kingston, Jamaica before moving back to the United States to attend Queens College; his international upbringing provided him with an incisive perspective on America, particularly pertaining to social and racial inequities.”

img_0957Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian

“Michael was riffing on Saint Sebastian, the early Christian saint and martyr who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows by the Roman Empire. There were multiple historical narratives interwoven in Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian other than the early Christian martyr depicted in psalms:118 or Christian paintings. Some popular culture references include the film King Kong (1933) and Muhammad Ali’s infamous Esquire Magazine cover (1968). The Tar Baby reference comes from the character by the same name in the Uncle Remus stories (1881) written by Joel Chandler Harris, made up of Black stereotypes in the 1800s; Tar Baby literary being made up of tar and turpentine.”

“I remember Michael speaking about the complexity of these themes running through the piece. Concepts of isolation, sacrifice and transformation were key elements in Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian. The discrimination and racism the original Tuskegee airmen had to struggle with and overcome as it came from their own U.S. Government was only the beginning of their battle during World War II. This complex and contradictory part of America’s history was crucial in the development of Michael’s piece. Interestingly enough, today most search engines describe this piece as ‘St. Sebastian’ and exclude ‘Tar Baby Vs.’ and there is a lack of critical attention paid to the American built Mustang fighter planes attacking their own pilot. I know Michael would have scoffed at the misrepresentation of his work because he was very particular about media-history and its representation of people of color.”

“He decided Tar Baby Vs. St. Sebastian was too expensive to make in bronze plus he lacked the proper facilities. Michael spent weeks making the life-size clay figure based on himself and in the process later taught me how to make a rubber mold. He didn’t complete the piece in Miami but worked on it in parts from 1997 through 1999 and exhibited first in Miami at the Caveat Emptor exhibition at Ambrosino Gallery, Coral Gables, FL. Genaro Ambrosino (Director) admired Michael’s work and was a close friend. Ambrosino Gallery would eventually give Michael his first one-person show in Miami on September 16, 2000. The exhibition was a coming home of sorts for Michael after finishing his CAVA residency in South Beach the year before.”

Say It Loud!

And these are the voices of those who knew and worked with Michael, along with Michael’s own special words:

Sam Seawright, Artist: “For Michael making art and getting his message to a diverse audience was essential to his being, and a vital component of his core beliefs. One beautiful lesson I learned from Michael was the importance of overcoming prejudices, lack of funds, false perceptions and misguided criticisms and to make art at all costs, in the end the art speaks for itself. He was able to practice in the studio the lessons he learned from the hardships persevered in his personal life. He preached compassion and understanding with his art and practiced generosity of spirit in his life.”

John Hock, Artistic Director/CEO and Co-founder, Franconia Sculpture Park: “Of the many blameless people annihilated that day in 2001, few can have meditated quite as much as this man did upon the quick rise and quicker fall of hope: a Jamaican, an immigrant, a black man, Richards knew something about the loneliness of exile, and the feeling of exclusion from others’ realities. It is no presumption to imagine Michael, at times, had nothing to go on but his rage against an identity projected on him by apartheid.”

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Carolyn Swiszcz, Artist: “I would describe Michael as soft-spoke (but not shy), confident (but not overbearing), and sophisticated (but not pretentious). He had a knack for charming pretty much everybody he met. It seemed to me that he didn’t suffer from the kind of prickly bad moods I struggled with, or maybe he was just much better at managing them. What stays with me most, almost twenty years later, is his smile. He shared ut often. I can easily envision it spreading across his face in response to a joke or in an attempt to express a sympathy.”

Wendell Walker, Deputy Director for Operations, Exhibitions, and Design, Museum of the Moving Image: “The fantasy of flight was a frequent topic between us during our early days together at the Grey [Art Gallery]. We shared dreams of flying — both beautiful and frightening ones — that we both had as children, and I cherish those conversations even though they now haunt me. I feel those dreams represent such a critical part of Michael’s work and life, and I feel strangely reassured that, on that horrible day, he decided to fly.”

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Marysol Nieves, Vice President, Specialist, Latin American Art, Christie’s Former Senior Curator, The Bronx Museum of the Arts: “The impressive body of work Michael Richards produced during his brief, yet prolific career reflects the discourse on identity, racial and gender politics that was so pervasive in the landscape of contemporary art during [the] 1990s. yet his work eschewed many of the tropes often associated with identity based art by tackling the complexities of, and at times painful histories implicit in the investigation of such notion as blackness, masculinity, and power.”

Dread Scott, Artist: “As much as I will remember Michael as an incredible brilliant artist and some of his unrealized projects, I really remember him as a fried and the simple things that make up friendship. What I remember most is him frequently greeting me in intentionally thick patois saying: ‘Whayousay Dread?’”

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Jorge Daniel Veneciano, Executive Director, El Museo del Barrio, former Curator of Exhibitions, The Studio Museum in Harlem: “Michael was a poetic soul. Somewhat quiet, with a bemused, all-knowing smile. He had a keen sense of irony. It suffused his work, sharpened his artistic wit. A poetic sensibility for human contradictions deepened the aesthetic value of his work… His interest in metaphors of flight adds a confounding layer of irony to his life and passing. Like Icarus, perhaps he flew too close to the sun — too close to the truth. And the dark poetry of the universe answered in an unforgiving way. Yet Michael’s work prevails as a living, lasting retort to the unmoved universe.”

Genaro Ambrosino-D’Amico, former owner, Ambrosino Gallery: “You know when sometimes you meet someone and you think, ‘Wow, he’s so cool! I want to be his friend’? That’s how Michael was. He was handsome, he dressed well, had a killer smile. He was loving and warm and made sure that you knew that you could count on him. He was smart, street and book smart. He could talk politics, art, music, history and popular culture with the same ease and knowledge, and always with a consistency that made you agree with him, even when you really didn’t! But one thing above all I loved of Michael, and makes me miss him most. He was fair, he was just. And you can’t say that of many people. That’s why he was so ‘cool.’”

Michael Richards, Artist Statement:

“— Does the glass ceiling which excludes also reflect the desire to belong?

“My current body of work investigates the tension between assimilation and exclusion. By focusing on issues of identity and identification, I attempt to examine the feelings of doubt and discomfort which face blacks who wish to succeed in a system which is structured to deny them access.

“How do systems of representation, and the portrayal of success both seduce and repel? I wish primarily to give voice to the psychic spaces in which exist both hope and frustration, faith and failure, and the compromises which must be negotiated in order to survive.

“Though the issues which inform the work may be seen as primarily political, I use language of metaphor to express them. The use of feathers and tar, mirrors and ladders, the concept of flight both as freedom and surrender, all attempt to open a metaphorical space into which the viewer can be seduced.

“This space allows for an examination of the psychic conflict which results from the desire to both belong to and resist a society which denies blackness even as it affirms.

“In attempting to make this pain and alienation concrete, I use my body, the primary locus of experience, as a die from which to make casts. These function as surrogates, and as an entry into the work.”

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The End Game

We look in vain for clarity to horrific events, and for meaning to our lives. Michael Richards discovered both fairly early in his career. I cannot help but think of the Winged exhibition, a spare memento of the artist’s state of mind, as an austere expression of his Spartan lifestyle.

Here, one may presume that Michael found closure in enclosed surroundings. His surviving works, as few in number as they were, have been arranged in predetermined patterns. We are left with a mere handful of artifacts, objects conceived and sculpted in cogent thought, in the hope of achieving a higher purpose and in demonstrating to the observer the many injustices that Michael witnessed around him.

What would Michael have said about the Black Lives Matter movement? About the murders that’s gripped the city of Chicago? About the NFL protests by quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers? How would he have reacted to the treatment of young black men — which he, too, happened to be one — to the violence around them?

These are the true tragedies of Michael Richards’ death; the art and political world were deprived of his powerful, reasoned voice. The exhibition of his remaining work, at the Art Center at Governor’s Island, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, offers, if nothing else, a singular vision of what it was like to live as a talented black artist in a racially and economically divided America.

Unlike the noise and strife that surrounded him, amid the tumult of world affairs — the so-called “body politic,” and the use of his own body to portray that very politic, spiraling out of control — Michael’s voice was one of calm and reason. To paraphrase a line from the poem “Invictus,” he was the master of his fate; he was the captain of his soul. He commandeered a measured, more pensive response to the world’s problems. He gave thought to his actions, yet put action into his thoughts.

I see a severed head (his own, if such as thing were possible) encased in a football helmet, the American flag draped around the lifeless body of a football player, kneeling before us. In my mind’s eye, I see the artist’s “statement” — it is Michael himself.

With gratitude to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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‘There’s Somethin’ Happenin’ Here’ — Songs that Celebrate a Turbulent Time (Part Two): From Folk-Rock to Pop

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For Pete’s Sake

American Folk-Rock Bank: The Byrds
American Folk-Rock Bank: The Byrds, circa the 1960s

Long before Bob Dylan made his mark; before Peter, Paul and Mary made the folk scene a regular happening; before the Limeliters came to light and the Kingston Trio thrilled us with their harmonies; before Trini Lopez, Harry Belafonte and Arlo Guthrie serenaded us with their hits, there were the likes of Huddy Ledbetter (“Leadbelly”) and Jimmie Rodgers, Arlo’s legendary papa Woody Guthrie, and that craggy rock of ages, Pete Seeger.

You can’t talk about Sixties rock and pop without mentioning that grand ole man of folk music and world beat — that is, before “world beat” had become a standard term of art. For all intents and purposes, Pete Seeger was to protest songs and political activism what Martin Luther King Jr. was to oratory and the spoken word: our country’s conscience and moral epicenter.

Born in New York City on May 3, 1919, Pete started playing banjo while still a teenager. His father was the musicologist Charles Seeger, from whom his lifelong love and pursuit of Earth’s musical marvels would derive. A prolific recording and concert artist, the constantly touring Seeger, even in his 70s and 80s, had more energy and drive than most individuals half his age.

Although blacklisted in the 1950s for alleged Communist activities and for his failure to give testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, Seeger boldly soldiered on as only he could, eventually winning an acquittal in 1962 of his contempt of Congress charge. Not that any of this prevented him from touring and recording, but Seeger must hold the record (or somewhere near it) for his many contributions to the expansion of America’s musical tastes.

 A young Pete Seeger in the 1940s
A young Pete Seeger in the 1940s

It is to him that we can attribute such popular fare as “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Little Boxes,” and “Guantanamera,” along with “Goodnight Irene” and “On Top of Old Smokey.” Just as Dylan eventually proved unwilling to take on the mantle of prophet of his generation, Seeger was just as willing to fill the gap — whether he realized it or not.

Like Dylan, Seeger’s sway on the flowering folk-music revival and ever-widening anti-Vietnam War movement was felt in the two most lyrical expressions from the era: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” written in 1964 and recorded by Dylan in 1965; and Seeger’s own interpolation of phrases from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes (attributed to King Solomon), “Turn, Turn, Turn,” both numbers recorded by Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and the Byrds.

Dylan’s use of trippy, dreamlike imagery gave “Mr. Tambourine Man” the flavor of a call to action, but not necessarily one to go out and protest. The words seem to refer to a Pied Piper figure, a charismatic personality (along the lines of Jesus Christ, a rock star, or Dylan himself perhaps) capable of sweeping you off your feet; of taking you on a voyage of discovery, of excessive contemplation of the self in what critics of the period would deem “navel gazing.”

As was his wont, Dylan’s acoustic original with guitar and harmonica boasted a rambling discourse in four verses, each one faster than the other, thus making it purposely difficult to follow his train of thought. This style of performing was atypical of the entire purpose of popular song: to absorb the lyrics and be able to convey a message that would fall effortlessly on receptive ears. Alas, we were witnessing the changeover from the easily discernible to the deliberately vague and indecipherable (vide Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones).

Sixties rock fans doted on the strewed nature of Dylan’s words. One can further detect the influence of LSD and other acid-induced trips, something the Beatles and other rock groups experienced as they tried to set their lyrics down on paper. Oh, and psychedelia was also blowing in the wind, but at this stage it was several years off from gathering a full head of steam.

Bob Dylan in the Swinging Sixties
Bob Dylan in the Swinging Sixties

Where did the folk-rock group the Byrds fit in? Before the British invasion of the early 1960s and the melodic Merseybeat took hold, American singer-guitarists McGuinn and David Crosby, bassist Chris Hillman, vocalist Gene Clark and drummer Michael Clarke were already active as folkies in and around the Los Angeles area. The Byrds’ short-lived fame (the original members split off into various groups) came from their signature twelve-string guitar sound (a Rickenbacker 360, by all reports), a jangly bell-like texture that enveloped pristine vocal harmonies like a musical glove.

Most critics compared them to the British groups the Searchers and the Hollies, not to mention the dominant style of the “Fab Four” (to wit, McGuinn’s penchant for wearing bangs and fashionable granny sunglasses came about). As a matter of fact, Graham Nash, who co-founded the Hollies with Allan Clarke, joined, in 1968, with David Crosby and Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield to form Crosby, Stills and Nash, a trio devoted to purity of the vocal line in their highly accessible work.

For “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the group’s debut single on Columbia, the Byrds performed only one of the four verses (the second), which held the song to just over the two-minute mark (two minutes and eighteen seconds, to be precise), quite the opposite of Dylan’s five-and-a-half minute homily. Besides McGuinn’s twangly guitar, only the group’s vocals were employed. The record label had decided to go with more experienced L.A. session players, known collectively as the Wrecking Crew, for the musical backdrop. On subsequent albums, the Byrds were allowed to accompany themselves on their own instruments — a wise choice.

The Byrds singing "Mr. Tambourine Man" on The Ed Sullivan Show
The Byrds singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” on The Ed Sullivan Show

 

“Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965), composed by Bob Dylan

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning, I’ll come followin’ you

 

Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship

all my senses have been stripped

and my hands can’t feel to grip

and my toes too numb to step

wait only for my boot heels to be wandering

 

I’m ready to go anywhere,

I’m ready for to fade

Unto my own parade

Cast your dancing spell my way

I promise to go under it

 

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning, I’ll come followin’ you

 

You can sense the giddy, almost dizzying stream-of-consciousness verbiage in the lyric makeup above. The repetitive nature of the melody and its insistent, forward motion were deliberately designed to force listeners to pay closer attention. No wonder audiences were so keen on following the Piper along. Let’s get a move on, folks! On a side note, McGuinn’s opening guitar riff was based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” in a version he adapted.

A very different air, albeit with a comparable rhythmic beat, surrounded the Byrds’ next musical number: the gorgeous, gospel-like sermon of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which the Limeliters first recorded back in 1962 under the title “To Everything There is a Season.” Seeger’s version came a few months later, while a year after that Judy Collins laid down the track (sensitively, I might add) on her Judy Collins 3. McGuinn, who arranged it for Collins’ album, expressed familiarity with the tune.

“It was a folk song by that time,” he explained in some 1996 CD liner notes, “but I played it and it came out Rock-n-Roll because that’s what I was programmed to do like a computer … We thought it would make a good single. It had everything: a good message, a good melody, and the heat was there.”

And what did the song’s composer, Pete Seeger, think of McGuinn’s interpretation? “I was a Pete Seeger fan and a Beatles fan,” he told musicologist John Einarson in 2005, “and mixing the two. Actually Pete liked what we did back when we recorded it and sent me a long letter saying that he really enjoyed the arrangement of it. He said, ‘Dear Byrds. I liked your rendition of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” very much. I thought it retained artistic integrity. My only musical query was why you didn’t repeat the first verse again?’ and obviously the answer to that is because of time. We wanted it playable on the air. As the years have gone by he’s been sending me letters that he’s really gotten into it. It’s totally different from his arrangement, but he loved it.”

That is for certain. It’s our honest opinion, then, that the Byrds may have had Mr. Seeger in mind, and not Mr. Dylan, when they recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

With that said, Seeger’s rendering of “Turn, Turn, Turn” (sometimes written as “Turn! Turn! Turn!”) is taken at a faster clip, although it’s not at all rushed. The melody goes up and down the scale, with a goodly amount of syncopated rhythm. The stresses fall on the phrase “Turn, turn, turn,” with added emphasis on the prominent “r” sound. It’s far from a romantic accounting, which the Byrds’ variant is a fair representative of.

Too, Seeger’s banjo playing may feel, at times, like the jangly twelve-string, but its purpose is to lend support to the vocal line; whereas on McGuinn’s take, the soaring guitars provide the primary emotional outlet as the main bridge between the third and fourth verses. And, of course, the timing lasts a full three-minutes-and-forty-nine seconds (or thirty-four seconds for the single) — not exactly in Dylan’s lengthy league, but close enough.

The Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn," a 45-single on CBS
The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” originally a 45-single on Columbia Records

 

“Turn, Turn, Turn” (1966) by Pete Seeger

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to build up, a time to break down

A time to dance, a time to mourn

A time to cast away stones

A time to gather stones together

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time of love, a time of hate

A time of war, a time of peace

A time you may embrace

A time to refrain from embracing

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to gain, a time to lose

A time to rend, a time to sew

A time for love, a time for hate

A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!

 

If one could express the sentiment that rock was inherently beautiful, then the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” is the very embodiment of that description. Yes, it’s folk-rock magic at its best; yes, it came out of the California lifestyle; and, yes, it had a political as well as a religious undercurrent. But by any measure, this is classic radio-friendly stuff. The blending of all-male voices, the delicious harmonies, the authoritative guitar licks, the fullness of the bass, the tightly wound band sound — this is what listeners remember the most. And we should give credit where credit is due.

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) in his later years -- the Grand Ole Man of Folk Music
Pete Seeger (1919-2014) in his later years — the Grand Ole Man of Folk Music

Thank you, Byrds! And thank you, Pete Seeger!

(End of Part Two – To Be Continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘King Kong’ (1933): The Monster that ‘Aped’ New York

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Bright lights on Broadway: King Kong on stage (1933(
The lights are bight on Broadway: King Kong on stage (1933)

A giant killer gorilla escapes its confines to wreak havoc on the streets of 1930s New York. What a premise for a story about a down-and-out film producer pining for his next big hit! Known as the picture that saved a movie studio — RKO Radio Pictures studio, to be exact — King Kong is the granddaddy of all those big-bad-stomping, monster-on-the-loose chomping fantasy epics. And it is every bit the classic it’s cranked up to be.

Labeled box-office poison by the press and hounded by insurance investigators and fire marshals alike, restless mogul Carl Denham (an overly enthusiastic Robert Armstrong) searches for the perfect angle for his upcoming project. Upon a chance meeting with the impoverished Ann Darrow (lovely Fay Wray, who bleached her dark hair blonde for the shoot), Denham impulsively decides to star her in his yet-to-be-announced adventure flick.

Cryptic and secretive to a fault, the wily producer nonetheless convinces Ann to trust him enough (“I’m on the level. No funny business!”) to accompany Denham and his shoestring crew as the only female member on board a ship “with the toughest looking mugs” anyone has had the misfortune to be associated with.

In the blink of an eye, they’re whisked away on a long sea voyage to … who knows where? Darrow and Denham are accompanied on their journey by salty seaman Captain Engelhorn and his lantern-jawed first mate, Jack Driscoll. Once our adventure seekers arrive on Skull Island, however, all hell breaks loose — quite literally. After unknowingly interrupting a native ceremony whereby a young girl undergoes elaborate preparation as the newly christened bride of “Kong,” Denham and his crew come face-to-face with the titular deity: an enormous anthropoid dubbed by Denham “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) conferring with Captain Engelhorn (Frank Reicher) in King Kong
Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) confers with Captain Engelhorn (Frank Reicher) on Skull Island

Amid the ceaseless pounding of native drums, Kong runs off into the jungle with Ann clutched safely in his arms. It’s love at first fright! But, as Denham prophetically warned, the danger lies when the beast allows himself to turn soft where the girl is concerned. In fulfillment of the prophecy, Kong comes to his bride’s defense by fighting off various prehistoric creatures, including incredibly thrilling battles with a vicious T-Rex (or Allosaurus, according to some sources), a slithering salamander, and a flying Pterodactyl. He also disposes of most of the crew members, leaving only a band of sailors guarding the gate, with Denham and Driscoll at opposite ends of a huge precipice.

Denham finds his way back to the village, while Driscoll follows Kong’s trail in order to rescue Ann. With Kong distracted by the local fauna, Ann and Driscoll brusquely make their escape by plunging down into the river bed below Kong’s lair. They manage to flee for their lives into the thick underbrush, with the raging Kong in hot pursuit.

After the giant beast has terrorized the village by munching and crunching the native population, he is knocked senseless by one of Denham’s gas bombs. But instead of coming to HIS senses, the publicity-minded producer can only see the biggest get-rich-quick scheme in the history of Broadway. He decides to ship Kong’s massage body back to Manhattan, where the monkey makes an unscheduled debut on the city’s streets — and atop its tallest building.

Top of the world: Kong meets his match
Top of the world: Kong meets his match

One of the greatest special effects extravaganzas of this or anyone’s time, King Kong did for the Big Apple what Godzilla would later do for Tokyo: that is, it immortalized a city, as well as almost single-handedly destroyed it — in cinematic terms, of course. It also lifted Depression Era audiences to ecstatic heights of visionary fancy, breaking attendance records at every showing.

This box-office champion of champions was the brainchild of two men, veteran movie-maker Merian C. Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack, both of who directed and produced the feature, based on an idea conceived by Cooper and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace. David O. Selznick was the executive producer. For the stop-motion wizardry, Cooper turned to FX expert Willis O’Brien (The Lost World), who in turn looked to model maker Marcel Delgado for the gorilla and dinosaur miniatures that figured so prominently throughout the picture.

Back and front projection and traveling matte shots were extensively employed, in addition to grisly close-ups of Kong’s denture work. His full-sized bust took 40 some-odd bearskins to cover! Not all of the effects shots were filmed perfectly to scale, mind you, nor did they blend seamlessly into the frame. Still, this picture was destined to become a landmark in the annals of horror fantasy films. It remains the lone monster flick from which all others need be measured.

King Kong: Ready for his closeup
King Kong: Ready for his close-up

The sturdy cast is headed by the rambunctious Robert Armstrong, who makes mincemeat out of his manic character’s ambition and drive. He’s both FDR and Horatio Alger: crippled by his inability to have audiences take him seriously (“Because the public, bless ’em, must have a pretty face to look at”), his ego refuses to admit defeat; this is one overwhelmingly optimistic venture capitalist. His is the unquenchable spark (and, by design, that of the film’s real-life producer-directors) that ignites the audience’s interest and imagination, particularly in the way he sums up the misadventure to its final, philosophical conclusion:

Police lieutenant: “Well, Denham, the planes got him.”

Denham: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

Fay Wray is the all-time champion hog caller (or, in this case, “scream queen”), but don’t let that fool you — she’s as full of pluck and spunk as they come. The softness and beguiling femininity she brings to the story’s ebb and flow make Ann Darrow an appealing contrast to the unbelievable horrors she’s forced to confront. Wray never had a better part,  even though she also appeared in the equally shocking The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Her peak period of popularity spanned the 1930s to the mid-1940s.

Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in Kong's clutches
Love at first fright: Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in Kong’s clutches

Lankily-built Bruce Cabot is crusty sailor Jack Driscoll, who falls in love with Ann upon snatching her from Kong’s humongous clutches. On the “strength” of his acting, though, he’s no match for the King. Frank Reicher is the stern Captain Engelhorn, Sam Hardy the wisecracking theatrical agent Weston, and James Flavin the second mate, with Victor Wong as Charley the Cook, Noble Johnson as the Native Chief, Steve Clemento as the Witch Doctor, Roscoe Ates as a press photographer, and Lesley Mason as a theater patron.

Look for cameos of Cooper and Schoedsack, who piloted the airplane that eventually brings the big guy down. Cooper was a World War I aviator who put his knowledge of flight to good use. He was also a pioneer in the three-strip Technicolor process. Film historian Rudy Behlmer interviewed Cooper back in 1964. During that interview, Cooper denied there were any “symbolic” or “phallic” overtones in the movie’s depiction of the Kong-Darrow relationship. According to Cooper, there were no “hidden meanings, psychological or cultural implications, profound parallels or anything resembling intellectual ‘significance’ in the film. King Kong was escapist entertainment pure and simple,” Cooper insisted. “A more illogical picture could never have been made” (The Girl in the Hairy Paw, 1976, foreword by Rudy Behlmer, p.13).

That may be. But for years, the film was shorn of many of its most, ahem, “revealing” sequences, the prime example of which finds Kong delicately peeling away most of Ann’s dress, leaving only her dainty negligee. An obvious vestige of the pre-Code period, this and other “politically incorrect” snippets (i.e., Kong tossing a woman he mistakenly takes for Ann out of her apartment window; scenes of Kong’s rampage at the native village; the odious connection of the wild and crazy natives with their skin color) were, for die-hard fans of the film, re-inserted in the mid-1970s. For better or worse, most movie prints include these once-severed sequences.

It would be a shame not to mention the powerful and highly influential movie score by Max Steiner, one Hollywood’s Golden Age best. Although dimly recorded, the picture would never have achieved the worldwide notoriety it deservedly merited without Steiner’s magnificent music. One of the most typical elements of which involved the split-second timing of the score with the action on the screen. This was known in the industry as “mickey-mousing,” in the way that music for animated cartoons always seemed to follow the characters’ movements.

None of the other remakes, including Peter Jackson’s three-hour 2005 effort, has come close to toppling RKO’s original from its throne. And no home theater should be without at least a DVD/Blu-ray disc copy of this superb film.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951): A Message for Mankind

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Klaatau (Michael Rennie: "We come in peace and with goodwill" in The Day the Earth Stood Still
Klaatau (Michael Rennie) speaks: “We come in peace and with goodwill,” in The Day the Earth Stood Still

The eerie sound of the theremin (two of them, in fact) begins this early fifties feature. The instruments are accompanied by two groaning Hammond organs and bass-pedal notes in the lower strings. Next, the brass section takes over with a muffled fanfare, suspiciously reminiscent of the opening theme to Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968.

The sensation we get is of being taken for a ride through the vast regions of space. Slowly approaching what appears to be the Earth, the soundtrack starts to fade away, leaving behind a staccato accompaniment for piano. The music now follows the trajectory of a mysterious craft hurtling itself toward our atmosphere at tremendous speed.

All the while, the spacecraft is being tracked by military intelligence and radar. Foreign countries are also monitoring the ship’s progress, as its final destination is revealed: the city of Washington, D.C., capital of the United States of America — the bedrock of freedom and democracy in a troubled world.

Almost immediately, newspapers and radio and television commentators from around the globe broadcast the event in cautious but barely controlled concern for what this might mean. One radio personality boasts of the lovely spring weather amid the burgeoning tourist season.

Klaatu's ship circles over Washington, D.C.
Klaatu’s spaceship circles over Washington, D.C.

Without warning, the brightly lit form of the spacecraft hovers into view. It flies directly above the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and the castle-like structures of the Smithsonian Institution. This startles the gathering crowd who follows the ship as it lands softly on a grassy lawn.

Army and military personnel, as well as tanks, jeeps, guns, and soldiers, have been dispatched to the scene. They assemble and surround the craft in nervous anticipation of what is to come. After a few tense moments, a walkway juts out from the body of the craft. An invisible door slides opens and out pops what looks like a male figure in silvery spacesuit and bubble helmet.

The visitor is an alien emissary from space who has come to Earth bearing only peace and goodwill. His sign of friendship and understanding, however, are taken for aggression when he draws what may be a weapon from inside his suit. An anxious soldier opens fire, hitting the helpless visitor in the shoulder, who instantly falls to the ground. The other soldiers approach the wounded visitor reticently, but just as suddenly Gort, a metallic eight-foot tall robot, comes into view. The soldiers and crowd are aghast at this incredible sight. The robot’s visor slowly opens and a powerful, laser-like beam is thrust upon the military’s tanks and weapons, immediately disintegrating them.

The giant robot Gort (Lock Martin)
The giant robot Gort (Lock Martin) aims his light beam at the military

Struggling to take control of the situation, the visitor halts the onslaught with a few carefully chosen words to the gigantic being. Recovering from the fall, he rises to his feet and retrieves the damaged “weapon.” The visitor then tells an uncomprehending soldier that it was a gift for the U.S. president. “With it, he could have studied life on the other planets.” So much for friendly greetings!

He also brings with him a dire warning which he intends to deliver at a proposed mass meeting of Earth’s leaders. But his intentions are misunderstood by a paranoid society unwilling to listen or to compromise. Impatient with the usual authority figures, including the president’s cynical secretary Mr. Harley, the gentlemanly alien named Klaatu escapes Walter Reade Hospital and his Washington, D.C., confines to learn for himself what makes these mysterious Earth creatures tick.

Michael Rennie is the cultivated, intellectually superior (and veddy British) Klaatu. He’s joined by sympathetic office worker Patricia Neal as Helen Benson — not exactly a love interest, but someone to play off of; Billy Gray (before his Father Knows Best period) as her inquisitive son Bobby; and soon-to-be popular sci-fi staple Hugh Marlowe (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) as Tom Stevens, who later fingers the alien for capture by the U.S. Army (darn those pesky diamonds!).

Mr. Carpenter (Rennie) & Bobby (Billy Gray) at Arlington National Cemetery
Mr. Carpenter (Rennie) & Bobby (Billy Gray) at Arlington National Cemetery

This is science fiction film noir at its finest, and one of the very best of its kind. Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still became an instant movie classic upon its release, which, despite the Cold War origins, has not aged a single day since its premiere.

Compare this flick to RKO’s The Thing from Another World, also from 1951, which took a more skeptical view of science by giving the “grunts” the last word. Here, military might bows to sheer brainpower in the person of the seemingly benign Klaatu. The central section has Klaatu rendering the Earth helpless by literally stopping it dead in its tracks — everyone and everything, that is, except planes in flight and ships at sea, along with hospitals, emergency wards, and the like.

The film gathers strength when Klaatu, after calling upon the friendly but eccentric Professor Barnhardt (the “smartest man in the world,” according to young Bobby), becomes a hunted fugitive. Gunned down while trying to make his escape, Klaatu charges Helen Benson with the survival of mankind. The fate of the world rests on her remembering three words: Klaatu barada nikto.

Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) speaks the immortal line: "Klaatu barada nikto"
Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) speaks the immortal line: “Klaatu barada nikto”

Veteran character actor Sam Jaffe plays the scholarly Professor Barnhardt in a proto-Einstein hairdo. His initial meeting with the alien, as well as Klaatu’s growing (but unrealized) friendship with Mrs. Benson and especially her son Bobby, are the movie’s closest encounters. However, jealousy and suspicion permeate the ethos where Mrs. Benson’s self-centered boyfriend Tom is concerned. Tom is representative of humankind as a whole, i.e., always in a hurry to move on and get ahead, but failing to look at the damage being done to those who fall behind. Sadly, this movie’s tenets are as true today as they were over six decades ago.

Others in the cast include Frank Conroy as Mr. Harley, Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee in the Andy of Mayberry series), Olan Soulé, Carleton Young, Fay Roope, Freeman Luske, and real-life news personalities Elmer Davis, Drew Pearson, and H.V. Kaltenborn. The role of the menacing robot Gort (a truly awesome creation) is played by seven-foot-four-inch Lock Martin, who was an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He had to wear two different metallic costumes, one for the front view and one for the back, due to a conspicuous, non-photogenic zipper running down the length of each costume.

Former movie editor Robert Wise directed in clinical, almost documentary-style fashion, while film composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) provided the spare music score. As indicated above, his and fellow colleagues Miklos Rozsa and Dimitri Tiomkin’s use of the theremin gained widespread exposure for this exotic-sounding instrument.

Keep alert to the many Christian and allegorical references spread throughout the script — for example, Klaatu’s untimely death and miraculous “resurrection” near the end, and his earthly alias (“Mr. Carpenter,” get it?). The original short story, “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates, was considerably altered for this movie adaptation, which is credited to screenwriter Edmund H. North (Flamingo Road, Young Man with a Horn).

The basic plot was semi-reworked for the excellent 1999 animated picture The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird and released by Warner Bros. Do stay away from the hopelessly inept 2008 Keanu Reeves/Scott Derrikson remake, or face obliteration! Late in his career, Michael Rennie made a well-received 1966 comeback in the two-part “The Keeper” episode for the Irwin Allen-created Lost in Space. Prior to that, Rennie starred as Harry Lime in the Anglo-American series The Third Man (1959-1965).

The film dares to ask: What is man’s place in the universe? And how can his destructive nature be contained? At this stage in our development, Klaatu’s apocryphal sendoff is worth repeating: “Should you extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. We will be waiting for your answer.”

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Thing From Another World’ (1951) and ‘The Thing’ (1982): Who Really Goes There?

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The iceman Cometh: Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World (RKO Pictures)
The Iceman cometh and went: Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (RKO Pictures)

One is an old Cold War relic, the other a modern-esque tale of paranoia run rampant. Which is “better”? And which is the more “relevant,” in terms of translating the original source material into a viable shocker for present-day movie audiences?

These are good points to ponder, but do we have an answer? No, but it’s worth spending a little time on the relative merits of these two equally effective science-fiction classics: RKO Radio Pictures’ The Thing From Another World released in 1951, and Universal’s The Thing from 1982. Both pictures address the theme of overly-aggressive visitors from outer space; both attribute their themes to issues prevalent at the time of their release; and both require their ensembles casts to come up with ingenious solutions to the problems presented by unfriendly aliens.

In addition to the above criteria, there is the presumption throughout that science, for all the sanity and wisdom it has imparted to explaining the unexplainable, is simply incapable of overcoming the complexities that humanity will face when confronted by factors beyond their knowledge or control.

The Thing From Another World (1951)

"Keep watching the skies" - The Thing From Another World (1951)
“Keep watching the skies” – The Thing From Another World (1951)

The premise: A flying saucer is found frozen in the Arctic Polar Region. Alerted to its presence, a salvage team of American research scientists, along with various military types, head out to the icy tundra in order to intercept and retrieve it.

In attempting to free the saucer from the permafrost, the military accidentally destroy the ship, only to discover that the alien passenger onboard has been flung into the ice. Instantly frozen by the subzero temperatures, the alien is rescued, in a manner of speaking, and brought to the scientists’ compound, with an around-the-clock guard keeping close tabs on the block of ice.

Unfortunately for the guard on duty, he places an electric blanket over the block so as not to gaze at the loathsome visitor’s creepy eyes, not realizing that the blanket’s warmth melts the surrounding ice. Within hours, the creature escapes the compound and goes on a violent rampage in order to preserve its kind.

A quintessential fifties sci-fi thriller, The Thing From Another World eerily mirrors the gathering Communist storm — and existential threat of that era — by echoing the American response to it. In addition to which, it took into account the increasingly frequent UFO sightings made after 1947. The film is in director Howard Hawk’s inimitable “chatty” style, i.e., abounding in overlapping dialogue with staccato delivery, spoken by a predominantly male cast and the lone wise-cracking female scientist (now there’s a modern angle to boast of). Although the direction is credited to Hawks’ assistant, Christian Nyby, the style is unmistakably that of the veteran of such classic pictures as The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday, and Red River.

The film provides a fair amount of suspense — the creature’s nighttime attack, and its being doused with flame throwers and gasoline buckets, as well as the claustrophobic surroundings, are major assets —but it’s too timid in its execution to furnish more than casual thrills.

Certainly the Frankenstein-monster getup for the alien invader is an egregious faux pas. The Thing, played by six foot seven inch James Arness (Them, Gunsmoke) in his salad days, is nowhere near as frightening or repugnant as it ought to be, considering the source material, John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story, “Who Goes There?” and how it’s described on the screen. Apparently, the less one sees of The Thing, the scarier and more intense things get (no pun intended).

The camaraderie and forced bravado of the military men, for example, along with their testosterone-fueled tendencies toward combating the wily creature, are, quite naturally, understandable, in view of the times in which the film was made: science takes a back seat to sheer bluster and Yankee gung-ho ingenuity in addressing the impending peril. Just the thought of a blood-sucking alien vampire on the prowl, turning humans and sled dogs into lifeless carcasses in order to sustain a growing brood of “super carrots,” was enough to send movie audiences into a tailspin.

It's the little "Things" that count: scientists inspecting Dr. Carrington's findings
It’s the little “Things” that count: scientists inspecting Dr. Carrington’s findings

Carlos Clarens, in his An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films, came up with a novel theory regarding his interpretation of The Thing from Another World: with reference to the creature’s intellectual superiority over his human counterparts, Clarens postulated that “omniscience does not mean human feelings, generosity, or understanding. In this respect, the film is something of a parable: superior science unencumbered by moral scruples will bleed us to death” (Clarens, p. 124).

He cites the example of chief scientist, Dr. Carrington (he’s very “caring,” if you know I mean), who argues for opening up communications with the alien being, only to be brushed aside not only by his fellow scientists and those itchy-trigger-fingered military men, but by the creature itself (violently so). As a matter of fact, the military treat Dr. Carrington a helluva lot better than The Thing does, which only proves the point.

The Thing (James Arness) meets the Scientist (Robert Cornthwaite)
The Thing (James Arness) meets the Scientist (Robert Cornthwaite)

The great ensemble cast mentioned earlier features many familiar faces, among them the reliable Kenneth Tobey as Captain Pat Hendry, Margaret Sheridan as Nikki, Dewey Martin as Crew Chief Bob, Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Carrington, George Fenneman as Dr. Redding, James Young as Lt. Dykes, John Dierkes as Dr. Chapman, William Self as Corporal Barnes, Eduard Franz as Dr. Stern, Paul Frees as Dr. Voorhees, and Douglas Spencer as “Scotty” the jocular newspaper man, whose final call to “Keep watching the skies” is a none-too-subtle alert against future Red menaces.

The eerie theremin-based film score is by Dimitri Tiomkin, and is in a category all its own. Although in our opinion it’s not the “classic of classics” some critics have made it out to be, I regard it as being very much like Puccini’s opera Tosca: it’s a “shabby little shocker” that still packs a tremendous wallop — when the titular Thing is out of plain sight, that is. And remember this, folks: Keep watching those not-so-friendly skies…!

The Thing (1982)

Kurt Russell as Macready in John Carpenter's The Thing
Kurt Russell as Macready in John Carpenter’s The Thing

With Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) having rejuvenated the vogue for chest-bursting monsters, doomed crew members, and outer-space horror flicks, director John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape from New York) undertook to remake that old fifties staple The Thing — this time with modern cinematic elements.

Carpenter returned to the original idea (the script was written by Bill Lancaster, actor Burt Lancaster’s son) of a shape-shifting alien being, suggested by sci-fi writer John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?” (written under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart). It told a terrifying tale of paranoia and loss of identity, long before the threat of Communism and invaders from Mars would “bug” us out.

However, after the real-life horrors of the Vietnam War, the ensuing Watergate scandals, and the revved up military spending spree vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, the 1982 remake of The Thing spoke solemnly to audiences of the mistrust inherent when individuals, charged with the responsibility of working together as a functioning unit, drop all semblance of so-called “civilized” society (see William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies for a similar viewpoint) to let mindless fear, panic, and isolation seep into their existence.

The story takes place at an Antarctic research facility (scene of the original tale, by the way), where American scientists are investigating the strange deaths at a nearby abandoned Norwegian installation. An Alaskan malamute appears to be the only survivor. Taking the dog back to their compound, one of the scientists, Clark, pens it up with the other sled dogs — but they sense this is not one of their own. Before long, the Thing they have brought back gets loose and starts to take over the minds (and bodies) of the individual researchers. In no time, the researchers turn on one another until in the film’s final frame only two “survivors” are left to toast their troubles away.

A cold day in hell: Kurt Russell (center) as MacReady in The Thing
A cold day in hell: Kurt Russell (center) as MacReady in The Thing

While faithful to the original work in cast and story line, and besides possessing top-notch special FX by the talented team of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston (using stop-motion techniques and animatronics), the film is so enamored of gore and viscera that it forgets to keep its mind on the main plot. The elements of fear and suspicion are present throughout, but there’s so little insight into the characters (and little if any background to them) that they serve as mere backdrops for the real showcase, i.e., those amazing transformation sequences.

Indeed, the creature that erupts all over the screen is without a doubt the vilest, most repulsive-looking Thing imaginable. It reminds one of a giant Venus flytrap. After a while, though, it even starts to take on the comic mannerisms of Audrey II, the “mean green mother from outer space,” in the hit musical The Little Shop of Horrors, which robs it of its ferocity.

Despite this mild handicap, in recent years the film has taken on the status of a cult favorite. At the time of its release, The Thing was in direct competition with the more benign E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Blade Runner. Movie critics eviscerated the work, which while tailored to mature audiences, is really an FX connoisseur’s dream come true (more like a nightmare).

The rugged, all-male cast is headed by Kurt Russell, at his swaggering best, as R.J. MacReady, Wilford Brimley sans his walrus mustache as the paranoid Blair, Richard Dysart as Dr. Cooper, Donald Moffat as Garry, Keith David as Childs, David Clennon as Palmer, Richard Masur as Clark, T.K. Carter as Nauls, Charles Hallahan as Norris, and Peter Maloney as Bennings. Gut-wrenching scenes, along with a dynamic, pulsating electronic score by composer Ennio Morricone, are the main pluses. The final confrontation between MacReady and Childs leaves it up to the viewer whether this Thing has been vanquished or not. It’s one of those truly nihilistic endings.

Keith David as Childs in the final scene of The Thing (1982)
Keith David as Childs in the final scene of The Thing (1982)

Strictly for lovers of elaborate effects, the Howard Hawks-produced version was much more fun than this deadly-straight, coldly distant, starkly dark rendition. But be warned: do not, by any means, let your kids see this alone (heck, I wouldn’t see it alone, either).

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes